Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday announced details in the long-awaited Phase 3 reopening of the state economy, with some good news for the hard-hit hospitality industry, but bars and night clubs will remain closed in the coronavirus pandemic.
The changes will take effect Oct. 8, Lamont said. They are happening as COVID-19 numbers remain low, despite a slight uptick in the last two weeks.
“We’ve watched this closely and it’s been pretty successful,” he said. “If we have to change course we will.”
Restaurants, hair salons, barber shops and personal service providers will be able to accept 75 percent of capacity, up from 50 percent. Outdoor venues including stadiums and concerts can go up to 50 percent of capacity, from 25 percent, with mandatory masks and social distancing.
Indoor performing arts venues can open up to 50 percent capacity.
Indoor gatherings such as weddings in commercial venues can be up to half of the location’s capacity — to a maximum of 100 people. Outdoor private events, with limits now of 100 people, will move up to 150 people.
Religious gatherings indoors can be up to 50 percent capacity, capped at 200 people, up from 100 now.
Outdoor religious gatherings and graduations can now have numbers of people limited only by the capacity of the locations — with distancing between groups.
All of these expansions come with mandatory masks and distancing, Lamont said. He had little to offer to the shut-down bars, however. “I think it’s worth waiting a little longer,” he said, noting that bars are by their nature hard to make safe.
Indoor social gatherings at private residences are still limited to 25 people, no change from Phase 2.
Restaurants and caterers, in particular, which have been trying to stay in business with outdoor dining, takeout orders and a fraction of indoor business, have been lobbying hard for looser limits heading into the cooler fall season.
Other businesses, notably personal services such as hair and nail salons, have also pushed for a lifting of some restrictions.
Will they come?
One question is whether customers will come now that the limits are being raised. Phase 1 of the reopening came in the third week of May and Phase 2 in the third week of June, with adjustments in July.
“We’re ramping up a little bit in terms of risk,” Lamont said, “but look — we could dial it right back.”
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said Thursday afternoon that industry leaders have met recently with Lamont and his top aides in attempt to persuade them that they can operate safely beyond the current 50-percent capacity limits for restaurants and 25 people for indoor events.
“Today’s news is another important step in Connecticut’s nation-leading efforts to respond to COVID-19 in a safe and responsible manner,” Dolch said in a statement released during Lamont’s daily news conference. “Like the rest of the country, Connecticut is not out of the woods of this pandemic by any stretch, but we've proven that it’s possible to be mindful of our local economy at the same time we keep our residents as safe as possible.”
Connecticut reinstated limited indoor dining on June 17.
“That means that for more than three months, customers throughout the state have been dining indoors while Connecticut has held COVID transmission to some of the lowest levels in the country,” Dolch said. “Connecticut restaurateurs have proven their ability to adapt, follow new rules, and serve customers safely. Today’s news is a recognition of their hard work and commitment to being part of the solution, and a recognition that the state must help a sector that at its peak employed 10 percent of the state’s workforce.”
‘A fighting chance’
Caterers, Dolch said in a phone interview, believe that can operate safely with 150 people at catered indoor events in venues rated at 300-person capacity.
“Luckily we’ve had decent weather for outdoor dining, but last Saturday it was 43 degrees at 8 p.m.,” Dolch said before Lamont’s announcement. “We’ve got to give these businesses a fighting chance. We are hopeful that consumers want to dine inside. The biggest unknown is where consumer confidence is. We have proven that we can do this the right way.”
Ollie O’Neill, owner and general manager of O'Neill's Irish Pub & Restaurant in Norwalk, called the decision “good news that we all need.”
Now it’s up to proprietors to “show the state that restaurants can handle this and operate in a safe manner,” he said.
The North Main Street pub has installed plexiglass and has removed some tables to space out its indoor eating area, O’Neill said. High traffic areas are regularly disinfected, and food is covered when being carried to guests’ tables.
“It will be interesting to see if customers are ready to be inside with 75 percent capacity,” O’Neill said.
“Ultimately I think if we can make people feel safe we’ll do more business,” he added.
Still far ahead of the nation
Connecticut has had a slight increase in cases and infection rates over the last two weeks but remains within its own three-month range, far below the national average.
The state had the nation’s lowest percentage of tests showing positive COVID-19 cases for much of the summer, mostly below 1 percent, falling as low as 0.5 percent. The rate moved up over the last two weeks and is now at a 7-day average of 1.3 percent.
The national 7-day average positivity rate hit a summertime high of 8.4 percent and is now at 5 percent, with a few states, notably Texas, over 10 percent, according to data compiled by Kaiser Family Foundation.
In number of new cases per day per 1 million residents, Connecticut has bounced between 20 and 50 for most of the summer and is now at a 7-day average of 45 - the 4th lowest among all states, with all of the lower states in the Northeast.
The nation hit 200 new cases per day per 1 million residents in late July, then fell to just over 100 two weeks ago and has climbed back up to 132. The states with the highest percent of new cases are in the South and especially the Midwest, led by the Dakotas.
Associate editor and columnist Dan Haar and staff writer Peter Yankowski contributed to this report.